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The Gesture of Silence
Notes on noise and the pursuit of silence in a world of sound.
Silence is impossible. Or as Susan Sontag said in her 1966 collection of essays Against Interpretation “Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence — moves which, by definition, can never be fully consummated.”
I spend a great deal of my time making moves in the direction of this horizon that Sontag mentions. Time spent replacing the sound around me with things I would rather hear. More so in situations that require me to focus. I can’t sit in silence because, well, there is no silence to sit in. My brain is littered with noise. I can sometimes hear the humming of a plug from the other side of the room. Most loudest are the thoughts in my head. My inner dialogue is effervescent. Whoever it is inside there chirping away can speak many languages and owns a library of accents. They simply will not shut up.
In an attempt to distance myself from the noise, I tune in to other sounds. I find that either Lo-Fi music or thunderstorm noises are most effective when I need to focus. Lo-Fi is described as music with intentional imperfections. You wouldn’t think that something intentionally imperfect works perfectly, but it does. Life hasn’t ever felt perfect and most likely never will. To choose something intentionally imperfect is to submit oneself to a freedom that is boundless. Tuning my emotional radio into these frequencies is a way of reaching out to silence.
Poet and author David Whyte describes this journey into a new silence in Consolations where he says:
“As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.”
My favourite station to tune into is Lofi Girl via Youtube. I found LoFi Girl almost around the same time as its inception in 2017. Back then it was named Chilled Cow. And thats exactly how I felt when listening, a chilled cow, chewing on the pasture of the sounds. Mooing along to the hypnotic hum.
The channel now has over 14 million subscribers, with 1.7 billion total views and is estimated to generate a sweet net worth to the tune of over $6 million dollars for the creator Dimitri. Lofi Girl is more than a youtube channel. Now, it is recognised as a French record label, they have a merchandise store front and even have a generator for you to build your own Lofi Girl character. Here’s mine:
You can make your own here.
The sound of thunderstorms are my go to when I need to sleep, usually found through an app on my iPhone. As the sounds play, I place my phone on my bedside table, often on top of 3 or 4 books I’m pacing between (ignoring finishing). Suddenly, this small screen machine that takes up so much of my life and feeds me so much fear and anxiety is now a beacon of calm and comfort. Comfort is the main feeling I get when I drifting off to sleep to the sound of thunderstorms. It comes from a place of nostalgia - Like that of nights in my teens where I would lay on my bed early evening. Placed directly beneath the window with my head on the pillow leant against the wall under the sill, listening to the rain, the breeze and the rumble of thunder in the distance. Some kids counted sheep to sleep, I counted the gap between thunder and strikes of lightening, trying to work out how many miles away I was from the eye of the storm. Often deep into sleep before I ever found myself in the middle of it. Or maybe sleep was the storm and my dreams were the lightening.
I don’t have TikTok anymore (way too much noise), but for the short period of time that I did, I recall a trend of videos that involved nostalgic sounds paired with calming visuals. The idea was to offer a break on the timeline for people to pause and be transported back to a time and place where things were simpler, nicer, less noisy. It had less of an effect on me to find these videos than it does for me to intentionally seek them out. Stumbling upon them was nice and even made me cry one late night on TikTok when the world was making a fucking racket. But the noise that surrounded that moment was too present, just one tiny scroll away and I was gone, dumped right back into reality with a thumb as keen as a rabbit leaping across the screen.
Instead, I seek these sounds out. Sometimes in bed, where I set myself up and type into my phone in search for the perfect video. And other times when i’m trying to write and work, I’ll open my laptop and search until the perfect video turns up. It sounds a lot like looking for porn. I suppose I do get off on it, It turns me on (and eventually off - in a cognitive and emotional way), there is a climax... Ok, it’s porn. Food Porn exists, so does Car Porn, so why not dreamscape lo-fi sounds playing by a window with rain outside porn?
Background noise is my main antagonist. There’s just so bloody much of it? And the annoying thing is that it exists both in it’s own space in the distance whilst simultaneously taking up all of the space in my head. I suppose all noise does - A car horn beeps in the road but we hear it in our head. People say horrible things, years pass, but what they said ferments in our heads in perpetuity. At what point does it just become noise?
Even remote and quiet places can be noisy. 4 years ago, I left London and moved to a coastal town just above the Highlands of Scotland. Although London might not be the capital city of noise, I found it to be very loud. Sirens and car horns ring out as if played by curb side violinists. Trains and tube carriages clutter themselves through the city with a clumsy and chaotic percussion. When I moved to Scotland, I hadn’t given much thought to how different my life would sound. No where near as much thought as I’d given to just how different it might feel. Though I suppose sound, noise and the ability to hear it all is indeed a feeling.
I recognise that life here is quieter, the spaces less chaotic. But that new void comes with ripples and aftershocks. More space to hear everything. Life now echoes in my surroundings, bouncing back to me as if I’m permanently shouting into a cave. Or it’s a bit like when you empty a house you have spent 10 years living in. Suddenly you are confronted with your voice calling back at you because the space is devoid of your belongings.
Away from my life in technology and pixels - I venture towards silence via trips to the nearby forest. Someone who dedicates their life to seeking AND protecting silence and quiet on Planet Earth is audio ecologist Gordon Hempton. In a brilliant conversation ‘Silence and The Presence of Everything’ with Kristina Tippet for the On Being Project, Hempton says “Silence is on the verge of extinction”. Adding “Places in nature that never have any noise pollution are already gone. The modern measure of silence is the noise-free interval”.
My attempt to focus by listening to Lo-fi and Thunderstorms are more of a coordination of a “noise free interval”. Though, for me at least, the chance to turn my back to the noise of everyday life is an experience close to the silence that I know. Being in a forest is one of the only spaces where I find myself able to truly drift into a complete audio consciousness. I am able to notice my environment more vividly and experience myself within it and as part of it. Hempton says “silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything”. You can listen to the full conversation between Hempton and Tippet HERE.
If you do one thing today, I would suggest it be to watch this delicate and beautiful short film of Gordon Hempton for the New York Times. Follow Hempton as he navigates his way through a number of spaces and sounds. The video is interactive, you can move the camera 360 degrees as the video plays. Watch it a number of times and play around with moving the camera differently, explore!
It is one of my favourite things on the internet and I would urge you to watch, and of course, LISTEN.
The poet Ada Limón writes “I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet” in her poem The Quiet Machine. Further noting “And then there’s the silence that comes back a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore”. You can hear a reading of the full poem by Limón below, also via The On Being Project.
I realise that it may sound as though what I am saying is that all and any noise, be it in my head or in front of me, is noise I don’t want to hear. But, I am grateful to have the ability to hear and use it to greatly assist me in my life. It lets me hear Abba when I want to. It lets me hear my mum on the end of the phone when I really need to hear her. It lets me hear the sound of the sea turning in its malignancy. It lets me hear my nephew Isaac say “I want to listen to Uncle Cameron’s music tonight when I go to sleep” (he’s referring to Lo-fi which is now considered my music after I was the one to introduce him to it. He uses it to fall asleep to).
In some strange multiverse of melody, there are certain playlists that rely on background noise to further convey their own sense of space and calmness. Like this one (one of my favourite’s), using oldies playing from another room and a fire and windstorm.
Another word to encompass these sounds and playlists is ‘Dreamscapes’. This implies a level of surrealism and a revolutionising of the human experience. I find that to be an accurate representation. Dreaming and escaping are very similar things. To dream of escape and to escape to a dream. The cloud between the two is soft enough to splinter through. These sounds are a way for me to sit inside that cloud. Floating above the chaos. I don’t take my ability to listen for granted, but that doesn’t mean I can’t resent some of what I have to listen to. Life is a symphony and at times it can feel like the instruments are missing strings or keys or cruelly out of tune. Taking myself off to this cloud is a way to conduct my life more effectively. Drifting along in the big fluffy nothingness, I eventually find myself in the middle of a storm, a great big beautiful noisy thunderstorm.
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